January 7, 2022

One afternoon back in pre-pandemic time, I was sitting in the corner office of a gay sauna, trying to discuss a banking issue with the owner. But we kept getting interrupted by the moans which could be heard through the wall: a young man was getting railed over his lunch break.

I’ve had many strange gigs, but being a consultant to the sex industry had the most promise for literary inspiration. Alas, no matter the degree of perversity I surrounded myself with, everything had an air of mediocrity. From brothels to strip clubs to porn sets, it turns out the business of pleasure is as mundane as the business of anything else.

While talking to the owner about the intricacies of “reputational risk”, I caught the eye of the young man heading for the exit (his paramour remained, on the prowl for round two no doubt). I glimpsed his surprisingly anxious eyes. For him, weekday sodomy may have been genuinely transgressive, a moment where his lust overwhelmed all personal injunctions. More than likely though, he was just getting off.

The author and poet Michel Houellebecq, whose new novel Anéantir is published today, is renowned for capturing our current state of sexual ambivalence. His novels depict aimless contemporary masculinity, often either institutionalised corporate bores (Extension du domaine de la lutte and Sérotonine) or failed lotharios (Lanzarote, Plateforme, Les particules elémentaires). His most archetypal protagonist is Bruno, from Les particules élémentaires (Atomised, in English), a loner who attempts to sublimate the misery of a broken childhood through hedonistic conquests. His story is a series of bleak, pathetic attempts to gain meaning by attending sex parties with his ageing lover:

Imitating the frenetic rhythm of porn actresses, they brutally jerked his cock in a ridiculous piston motion as though it was a piece of dead meat (the ubiquity of techno in the clubs, rather than more sensual rhythms, probably contributed to the mechanical nature of their technique) . He came quickly, with no real pleasure, and after that, the evening was over as far as he was concerned.

As the academic Gerald Moore has noted of Bruno: “Nietzsche’s supposedly revolutionary affirmation of life is reduced to the futile but comforting banality of one who hopes that naughty consumption (ice cream!) and unconventional sex are enough to redeem the misery of existence.”

Despite his aggressive ambivalence about sex, Houellebecq’s novels are often lumped within the genre of “transgressive fiction”. Indeed, Houellebecq’s whole persona is seen as a kind of transgression of contemporary norms to many critics. So tightly has this reputation held, that an event was organised in 2018 at which scholars from Australia, England, France, Northern Ireland and Switzerland at the University of London were brought together to “discuss and debate Michel Houellebecq’s cultural transgressions”.

Transgression, as philosopher Michel Foucault defined it in his Preface to Transgression, is a rapture which opens onto a scintillating and constantly affirmed world, a world without shadow or twilight…It was originally linked to the divine, or rather, from this limit marked by the sacred it opens the space where the divine functions.”

Transgressive authors of the 20th century generally produced narratives which were virulently anti-social (often sexually graphic and violent); both the junky psychedelia of William S Burroughs and the hip psychopathy of Bret Easton Ellis fit into this mould. The archbishop of transgression, though, is undoubtably the dissident surrealist and “excremental philosopher” Georges Bataille, who not only produced transgressive works, such as his pornographic novel Story of the Eye, but provided a theoretical foundation for the genre in his works Erotism and Literature and Evil.

For Bataille, civilisation involves a tension between social taboos (norms of rationality, morality and purity) and the desire to transgress into the heterogeneous (madness, evil and filth). “I believe that the Evil — an acute form of Evil — which [literature] expresses, has a sovereign value for us,” he notes.

To cross the threshold from civilised mind into mad ecstasy (even if merely through art), was what gave man a taste of unindividuated nothingness — complete ego-death both terrifying and exquisite. Bataille deemed non-productive sexuality (from orgies to “high prostitution”) to be crucial to this. For him, a brothel was a church. But, as Houellebecq notes in his novels, to the extent that this was ever true, the sexual revolution of the Sixties has led to the de-stigmatisation of sex, rendering it both moral and healthy. Contemporary sexuality is well and truly within the realm of the normative and rational, which is why it is so susceptible to free market transactional logic.

Bataille himself noted that sacred sexuality required taboo: “If there was not in us a prohibition which is deeply opposed to the freedom of our erotic activity, we would not have erotic activity.” But if transgression through virility and violence is now impossible, how then has Houellebecq managed to capture the spirit of transgression? I’d argue he has done it through a particular form of radical honesty.

Cultural critics who frame Houellebecq as a mere enfant terrible, a provocateur characterised by xenophobia and misogyny, are blind to the deeply spiritual quality of his writing. As a follower of arch-pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Houellebecq’s words hurt, they are painfully true. His ironically titled poem “L’amour, l’amour” includes this cutting stanza:

I speak to all those whom one has never loved, who has never been able to please:
I speak to those absent from liberated sexuality,
from normal enjoyment

Houellebecq’s spiritual pessimism is similar to early 20th century Romanian essayist and philosopher Emil Cioran. Cioran’s cynical aphorisms (“What do you do from morning to night? I endure myself”) sound quintessentially Houellebecqian to modern ears. Interestingly, though, Cioran was also a mystic — for whom nihilism was a passage to the absolute.

The spark of transgression in Houellebecq’s writing, unlike Bataille’s violent sexual drive, is that of raw, emotional fragility. As the (likely self-insert) character of Michel notes in Les Particules élémentaires: “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so hard to give up hope.”

In a 2007 interview with Le magazine littéraire, Houellebecq angrily dismissed comparisons between his work and Bataille, saying: “Pour moi, le sexe et la transgression n’ont rien à voir” (For me, sex and transgression aren’t related), going on to lament “Je n’aime pas cette confusion entre le sexe et le mal qui fait que tous les gens sont hors sujet” (I don’t like the confusion between sex and evil which means real people end up irrelevant).

Following this, Russell Williams argued that perhaps “Houellebecq’s true transgression lies in the extent to which his novels, even in the face of the insidious creep of neoliberalism, consistently champion the outmoded what Barthes terms ‘l’obscénité sentimentale’: old-fashioned romantic love”.

Indeed, despite his cynical view of sex, Houellebecq is an apologist for the self-shattering potential of love. As the character Florent-Claude Labrouste, bemoans in Sérotonine:  “The outside world was harsh, merciless towards the weak, and hardly ever kept its promises, and love remained the only thing in which one could still, perhaps, have faith.” It is this brutal longing which makes Houellebecq’s novels truly transgressive. He is a hopeless romantic in a world of excess, a sentimentalist in a time of tech-mediated spectacle. Nowhere is this clearer than in the opening lines to his poem, Loin de bonheur:

The world is disenchanted.
All that has the nature of appearance has the nature of cessation. Yes. And so? I loved her. I love her. From the very first second this love was perfect, complete. You cannot really say that love appears; rather, it manifests itself. If you believe in reincarnation, the phenomenon becomes explicable. The joy of finding again someone you have already met, who you have always already met, forever, in an infinity of previous incarnations.
If you don’t believe in it, it is a mystery.

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